New York

Agnes Denes

Joyce Goldstein Gallery

Like D’Arcy Thompson, Agnes Denes is obsessed with mathematical consistency and universality in nature, adding to that a humanistic concern for its survival. The redemption of nature may in fact be her ultimate goal. As presented in this show, a documentation of numerous environmental “performances” and constructions, Tree Mountain, conceived in 1983 and currently being realized in an abandoned gravel pit in Finland, is a “living time capsule” of 10,000 trees planted by 10,000 people, a kind of poultice applied to one of the earth’s many wounds. The project follows a complicated mathematical formula combining the ratio of the golden section and the curvature of sunflower/pineapple patterns occurring in nature. Like many of Denes’ works, it takes the shape of a Pascalian pyramid, a structure that is paradoxical in two ways: first, the abstract mathematical equation that generates the two-dimensional figure of Pascal’s triangle is realized in concrete three-dimensional form; and second, Denes intends for this structure to stand as a closed, utopian, hierarchical model for society. Linking natural content and a thoroughly social meaning through “universal” mathematical abstraction, it is a comprehensive environment—a Druid-like structure meant to be seen from outer space.

Given the scale and scientific rigor of Denes’ pieces, it is difficult to do them justice in a show such as this. While some of her work, particularly when presented in “documentary” form, may come across as defiant but token gestures—her best-known work, Wheatfield—A Confrontation, 1982, a two-acre wheat field planted on Manhattan real estate (the Battery Park landfill) worth $4.5 billion that eventually yielded a harvest of 1,000 pounds of healthy golden wheat, has been understood as particularly ironic (in terms of both the discrepancy between the value of the land and the size of the harvest and the oddity of converting a highly urban area into farmland)—Denes actually intends to make it clear that our fate is inseparable from that of the earth we inhabit. Her “pyramid schemes” are meant not only to provide a cosmic perspective on our condition—that is, to remind us that we are finite beings within an infinite cosmos—as well as to embody our wish to transcend it; they also function as a kind of utopian science-fiction spaceship on which we may all live harmoniously. (The futuristic dimension of Denes’ work is made explicit in the marble tablets “unearthed” in her Selae—Messages from Another Time—Discoveries of Minds and People, 1986, which predicates an excavation of Genoa in 6000 A.D.)

Denes’ uniform fields of wheat and trees and, above all, the people who populate her many pyramid projects are as repetitious and modular as the elements of any Minimalist work, but they have a more totalizing grandeur by reason of their scale and “pointed” shape. Indeed, these works unwittingly verge on the totalitarian: one can’t help thinking that Denes shares Vincent van Gogh’s wish (expressed, for example, in a letter to Emile Bernard in August 1888) for a perfectly symmetrical, seemingly ideal social pyramid, in which there is an assigned, proper place for everyone. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the closed society represented by her pyramids acknowledges the inescapability of humanity’s common fate.

The relentless abundance and range of Denes’ public eco-projects and esoteric “metaphysical”/mathematical Conceptual structures are amazing, encompassing media from environmental installations to meticulously detailed drawings. More than any other artist working within these coordinates, her work is based on a concern with scientific and mathematical knowledge. The fact that she works with such Conceptual issues—a part of the art world normally inhabited by male artists—may explain why her work has not received its proper due, but to my mind, her combination of scientific rigor, social and environmental concerns, and involvement with Conceptual issues may make her the true heir to the legacy left by Robert Smithson.

Donald Kuspit